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June 18 2013

17:28

“Does that worry you, about newspapers dying?”

The New Republic‘s Isaac Chotiner was hellbent on asking the the tough questions when he interviewed Politico founders John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. There’s a feisty exchange about the work environment at Politico, especially for their female employees, but the Beltway gentlemen also get into the site’s role in the broader media landscape, as well as where they plan to head with their content.

IC: Is there a story that you are most proud of?

JH: I think of us more in terms of reporters and our young staff, and I think about that in terms of the broader business. It’s crumbling! Carrie Budoff Brown came to us from the Philly Inquirer. It was a shell. The Washington Post is still a strong newspaper, but no one there would say it is providing the number of opportunities for young journalists that it was able to do when I was there.

IC: Does that worry you, about newspapers dying?

JH: Sure, and there are lots of implications there about the future: Who fills in the foreign coverage and local news as they retreat? I’m proud of the role we play in answering questions about the future of our own field. But let’s face it, most stories on any given day are perishable.

IC: This interview will last.

JH: I agree. This will be one for the ages.

June 14 2013

14:40

Pinned: Dan Zak, 40 Towns, Chimamanda Adichie, TED Radio Hour, writing advice, Walter Lippmann

Pinned this week week for your storytelling pleasure:

Highly recommended: In schools, the complexity in assigned reading is dropping, NPR reports: “A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” Pair with yesterday’s engaging Dan Zak piece in the Washington Post, on the news illiteracy and apathy of prospective jurors in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case:

The efficiency of the American jury system, Mark Twain once wrote, “is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”

Yet it is the most democratic demonstration we have, says Randolph Jonakait, a professor at New York Law School and author of “The American Jury System.”

“That we take ordinary people off the street and ask them to decide the fate of other human beings — that’s truly remarkable,” Jonakait says. “And it says something about our belief or our faith or our willingness to use ordinary common sense in making the most important decisions people are ever going to make.”

R39, a landscaper, wrote this on his juror questionnaire: “I don’t really care about what happened.”

When pressed in court about this sentiment on Wednesday, R39 says: “I’m not a person who cares that much about other people.”

When court went into recess late Wednesday afternoon, 75 jurors had been dismissed and 20 remained in the potential pool. Once the pool reaches 40, these potential jurors will be subjected to a round of more detailed questioning that will drill down into personal matters and opinions unrelated to pretrial publicity. The judge announced Thursday that the jury would be sequestered for the duration of trial, which is expected to start next week, at the earliest, and last two to four weeks.

Through Thursday, 34 potential jurors had been questioned individually, sitting in the same cushioned chair, in front of the same congregation of media, answering the same convoluted questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

De la Rionda is asking B86 on Tuesday if she could disregard hearing that Trayvon had been suspended at school.

“I could try,” says B86, auburn hair tucked behind her ears.

Does “try” mean you can?

“Probably.”

“ ‘Probably’ means you’re not sure? Does it mean ‘maybe’?”

“I’m not sure. . . . I can’t guarantee anything.”

“We are inspired by the honesty of the potential jurors,” Trayvon’s family said in a statement Wednesday.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 9.30.23 PMGear: “Keep Calm and Revise” — just put it on your wall already. You’ll feel better. Bonus: a “bloody-writer” crime scene notepad, for the days when that doesn’t work.

Inspired: “I learned how to read from comic books, but also how to see.” + 40 Towns, the literary journalism website and work of Jeff Sharlet’s students at Dartmouth + TED Radio Hour exploration of storytelling, with novelist Chimamanda Adichie, filmmaker Andrew Stanton + Creatavist, The Atavist’s new DIY multimedia storytelling tool, which WBUR is using to manage Whitey Bulger trial coverage.

Cartoontorials: on finding your own voice (but loving Michael Paterniti’s!); on the professionalism of sticking to your assigned word count; on the definition of narrative journalism (in case you forgot).

Tip sheets: Writing advice from famous authors (Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”) + Edmund Wilson’s checklist on how to say NO.

Walter Lippmann: a board devoted to the two-time-Pulitzer-winning columnist, author, founding editor of The New Republic, and namesake of our Nieman Foundation headquarters, Lippmann House. A deep thinker on the interplay between public opinion and the news, he argued that the masses make up their mind before studying facts, and that most people operate in willful ignorance, without bothering to think critically. He made those arguments in 1922. (Sound timely? See: Zak; Zimmerman; news, above.)

May 03 2011

12:50

Eliza Griswold on religion, reporting and violence

We spoke last week with Eliza Griswold, winner of the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.” In addition to winning the Lukas Prize, which is co-administered by Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation, Griswold has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and The New Republic. She was awarded a 2010 Rome Prize from The American Academy in Rome and has also published a book of poetry, “Wideawake Field.” In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about managing a stable of characters, what she hopes readers will get from the book, and what she would do differently if she were starting the book today.

For anyone in our audience who hasn’t read your book, how would you describe the origins of the title, “The Tenth Parallel”?

The 10th parallel is a line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. But as the title of the book, it really defines the space between the equator and that line of latitude that marks the encounter between Christianity and Islam in much of Africa and Asia. That’s a geographic encounter.

I started the book with the single statistic that 4 out of 5 of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Middle East. They’re not Arabs. So what we think of as Islam and what actually functions on the ground as Islam are two very different things, and the same is true of Christianity. And along the 10th parallel sit the borderlands of both Christianity and Islam. I wanted to travel to where those two borders overlapped, to see what happens in floods, in droughts, in political elections, in fights over everything, really, from water to chocolate – what happens when those two religions come into contact and conflict on the ground.

At what point did you know you wanted to tell this story?

I came to this story traveling in Sudan in 2003 with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and head of a half-billion-dollar evangelical empire. And although he’s worked in the south, in southern Sudan, for more than 20 years now, Franklin was going for the first time in history to meet with President [Omar al] Bashir, who is still Sudan’s sitting president, even though he’s been indicted now for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Franklin was going to meet with this man whom he had called just as evil as Saddam Hussein, if not more so.

Franklin was very much in the news at the time because he had called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion” just after Sept. 11. So I wanted to go with him to see what happens when a conservative American evangelical leader with close ties to – at that time – the Bush administration, actually sat down with his sworn enemy face to face.

You have a tremendous cast of characters in the book. Reading it, I was thinking you must have spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate that cast. How did you decide who belonged and who didn’t and what size each person’s role would be?

It was probably more intuitive than anything else. It took seven years to write it for a reason. It’s six countries and 9,000 miles and two continents. It just really was a much larger undertaking than I understood when I began. When I started the book, I thought I would essentially write a series of narrative travelogues and that this fault line was largely metaphoric. It wasn’t until I got on the ground and started traveling that I saw how real the demographics and geography of Christians and Muslims meeting on the ground really was.

I had to write the book in layers. I started with the narratives and then, with my editor’s help, came to understand that the travelogue was not going to be enough, that there were much larger forces at play: geography and history and weather and centuries of human migration; and that the book, to be what it needed to be, was going to have to take all those factors into account as well. So it was really a process of layering, of going through and writing and rewriting.

The narratives came first, and then came the issue of “what are the larger ideas here?” One of the things that I loved about doing the reporting this way was that I didn’t start with any conclusions. I didn’t start with trying to prove, or even disprove, the clash of civilizations. That was a great luxury. I could just travel along this line and see what was actually happening on the ground.

But at the end of the reporting, I needed to begin to draw some conclusions about what I had seen, so that was another layer of writing through it. And then I had to write it again to make sure it did follow through, to make sure it would make sense beginning to end. It is a lot of characters. I would not recommend to anyone else to have so many characters.

You also have a number of key points in time to address – stretching from antiquity though imperial colonization and missionaries into today’s world.

That was intuitive, too. I had to find my way through the story, geographically, historically and narratively. And essentially what I need to do, once I’d done that, was to trace how I did it, and then trace my thinking for the reader.

I’m super-compelled by some of the early stories that the book just touches on. For example, I didn’t know until I went to Ethiopia – or just before when I was researching – that before there was Islam, this collection of a dozen of Mohammed’s followers had gone to the court of a Christian in Ethiopia, which was then Abyssinia, and asked for safe haven. They told the king the story of the Virgin Mary from the Quran to prove that they were related to one another.

That kind of story become so important to my understanding of place, and what is important for us to understand how interlinked we are. But then that becomes an element that I had to bring to the reader. I didn’t set out saying,“Knowing what I know about Ethiopia, I’m going to report the story the following way.” It was a lot of bumping into things: ideas, people and events as they unfolded.

You grew up the child of an Episcopalian bishop?

Yes.

How useful or how much of an impediment was that background in doing this book?

I definitely wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t who I am, and I am who I am by virtue of how I grew up, largely. So the questions of faith and intellect and how those two coexist are questions I grew up asking myself and also seeing asked around me, and from my earliest memories sitting around the kitchen table with the crock pot stew, hearing discussions of the inter-linkages of how God and the mind do or don’t fit together. That definitely had a lot to do with it. My dad, beyond all, was a kind of a mystic, so I definitely I did not grow up with any kind of exclusive understanding of God, that anyone had the exclusive claim on truth or heaven or anything.

So I was writing about religion and human rights. I was writing about honor killings before Sept. 11 and how early Islamic law, when Muhammad set down the codes that he did that now look so oppressive to us and out-of-date, that actually those were the most progressive of their time in terms of giving women property rights and outlawing the right to kill your female baby.

I was intrigued with that stuff, but it’s definitely after we started to see Christianity and Islam as these opposed ideologies, these exclusive understandings, that I felt called to explore the question of whether exclusive faith leads to violence.

That’s how I came to it: what’s the relationship between religion and violence? That’s not what I grew up with, a faith that posits black and white, salvation and damnation, but I was interested to see how that grafted onto contemporary political and economic and resource struggles.

You said that you didn’t go into it with any conclusions, that a lot of it unfolded in front of you. There’s a sense coming out of the book as a reader that I know a lot more than I did going in. But at the end of the book, you don’t give any simple conclusions. Did you always know it would be that open at the end?

I wanted to see what was true and articulate, and so if I had thought there were clear conclusions, I would have drawn them. But there was no easy truth, so there were no final conclusions to draw. I would hope that readers take from the book the understanding that the most important religious fights are those taking place inside of religions not between them. It’s really those fights between Christian and Christian and Muslim and Muslim that shape each religion’s relationship with the other.

You do so many kinds of narrative: You’re a journalist and a poet. How do you think about storytelling? What are you looking for a story to do?

I’m looking for a story and a poem to do the same thing – to unfold on two levels at once. I want it to be successful on a very daily level of “here’s a satisfying beginning, middle and end.” But I’m looking for it to work on another level as well, to serve as an allegory of a larger truth. It’s better if I don’t have that truth defined, because if I’m driving that story to a certain calculated end, chances are I’m trying to control what I saw. But as a narrative writer, I can feel the heat around those stories, where they tell a larger truth, and that is what interests me.

As for the small stories, I realized pretty early on I wasn’t going to be able to explain anyone’s faith away. Although that had not been my intention, I had thought I’d be able to have a better sense of, “Oh, this one’s a true believer, and this one’s not.” Wrong. Pretty early on I realized that was going to be beyond my skill, because everything was so subjective. So the best I could do was to own my own subjectivity and bring these stories back whole cloth, and let the reader draw the conclusion of what they meant on those two levels.

A lot of great stories rise out of the open approach that you’re taking, but in reporting nowadays, there’s much more of a sense of editors wanting writers to go out and get a predefined particular story, which can make it tough. Do you have any advice for those who would like to do the kind of thing you’re doing?

It’s a fine line, right? And how did I pay for this?

I’m sure our readers would like to know.

I’m a freelance magazine writer who’s never been on staff anywhere – that’s partly due to the era in which I’ve come of age and the changing media model. My editors knew what I was doing. They knew I was working on this book while I was writing for them. I would go somewhere and do a story that might be related, but the best times they were unrelated stories. I would cover one issue and then be able to stay in that respective country and do what I needed to do for the book.

I deliberately assigned myself stories in the countries that I needed to go to for work, which always meant they were not A1 kind of stories. These are stories at the edges of places. So for journalists there’s a big trade-off: What matters most to you? Does it matter most to you to be with the pack, covering the story that’s moving in largest font in the day, in the boldest type? If that’s what matters most to you, which I totally understand and think is extraordinarily valuable to the world, then this is not something you would want to try.

If you’re curious about the edges of places, and you prefer to exist in marginal spaces a little bit off the grid, then that’s kind of the model that I came out of.

What were you hoping the book might accomplish?

I hope it helps people understand their own religion a little bit better. I know that, especially in this country, given the understanding that Islam is more explicitly linked with violence than Christianity is worldwide, I certainly hope it dispels some of that stereotyping.

What it has done that never occurred to me is that some of the Somali doctors in the book got to meet Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago. The book brought some attention to them and has made a difference in their ability to do their own work in Somalia. I never would have imagined that.

Has anything about the reception of “The Tenth Parallel” surprised you?

It never occurred to me that it would be so widely read. It never occurred to me that it would be a New York Times bestseller. I thought I was writing a well-written narrative travelogue that would go its own quiet way. The interest in it has surprised me a lot – the hunger for information, people’s questions when I go places. Those have really surprised me.

I think there are flaws in the book. My editor always says, “You learn how to write a book by writing a book,” and that’s certainly true. I think you also learn how to report a book by reporting a book. I know that there are narrative devices I used at the time that I would change.

Such as?

One thing I did – this is advice for fellow reporters. Because I like sitting down and talking to people, a lot of the reported scenes of the book is my sitting down and talking to people as opposed to watching them live their own lives. I think there’s a great capacity for just simply watching people live their own lives. That’s something that maybe I didn’t do enough of.

Any other tips about what you’d do differently if you were starting today?

I think I would push myself harder to reconstruct more narrative, as opposed to using the interviews as their own narrative forms. I don’t know how I would have done that in some cases…

Sometimes that’s a question of what material is actually available.

Exactly. And I was going for these very specific stories, most of which were cast in the past.

Another thing: sometimes I get readers who say, “You should be in there more.” I did not do that, because it makes my skin crawl, the “bearing witness” aspect of American journalists where they’re actually heroicizing themselves when they pretend to be telling a story. There are a lot of things that happened, a couple of super-dangerous things that I thought were so distracting from other people’s lives that I couldn’t write about them without fearing that it would come across like derring-do.

But I think there’s another way to be in the story as a first-person character, which is to come in more with observation, and even if those observations prove to be wrong in the long term, or inaccurate, then you have something to push back against. In that way, I think there is a huge capacity for being present in a book in an interesting way.

Bringing the reader in through your eyes as opposed to having them watch you do something.

Exactly. Also, I was very cautious with this material, because a lot of it is so sensational. It is religion and violence. I wanted to be super, super careful that in talking about this stuff that I wasn’t in fact reigniting problems. You can see what happens when someone threatens to burn the Quran and people die in another country. I was very aware that if this book were to reverberate in the wrong way, it could lead to trouble along those lines. Thank God it hasn’t, but if I could err on the side of telling a dramatic story in a little more complicated way, with more context, which was sometimes a little more boring, in order to get a more complicated truth out there, I definitely tried to do that.

We often talk about how, as long as we tell the truth, to tell the most exciting, dynamic story possible. But you wanted to pull back from that.

I never saw a conflict that didn’t have some kind of secular or worldly trigger. One thing about our colleagues, especially in the secular press: we tend to discount religious ideas or faith as something that can be explained away, as something that is a factor of poverty or disenfranchisement. “Of course, people in the developing world think about God in that way,” we say. “They don’t have anything.”

All over the middle belt in Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are killing each other right now, there is a propensity on the part of reporters to say, “Well, this isn’t about religion, this is about ethnicity.” Maybe somebody in a wire report position has to say Christians and Muslims. And then somebody who has a little more time, coming from a human rights angle, is going to say, “This is all about ethnicity and has nothing to do with religion.” But what if the truth is somewhere between the two? What if those who are there, they say that it is about religion? They say they are killing each other because of rival faiths. Where does their voice go?

That’s true, too. Both are true at the same time. The situation I frequently faced was that “OK, this has to do with being an indigenous citizen, ethnicity, money, lack of access to clean water and good roads” – getting all of that down in an accurate way without discounting the role of religion. Because [discounting religion] is super easy to do, too. That’s as much of a position as anything else.

Wouldn’t it be easy to say, “This has nothing to do with religion”? That would be easy, and people would like to hear it. And it’s not true. So I’m constantly trying to keep one foot in both of those worlds.

Photo of Eliza Griswold by Antonin Kratochvil.

April 09 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: The iPad has landed, WikiLeaks moves toward journalism, and net neutrality is hit

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The iPad unleashed: If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or TV this week, it’s not hard to determine what this week’s top journalism/new media story is: Apple’s iPad hit stores Saturday, with 450,000 sold as of Thursday. I’ll spare you the scores of reviews, and we’ll jump straight to the bigger-picture and journalism-related stuff. There’s a ton to get to here, so if you’re interested in the bite-sized version, read Cory Doctorow and Howard Weaver on closed media consumption, Kevin Anderson on app pricing, and Alan Mutter and Joshua Benton on news app design.

If you’re looking for the former, The New York Times and the current issue of Wired have thoughts on the iPad and tablets’ technological and cultural impact from a total of 19 people, mostly tech types. We also saw the renewal of several of the discussions that were percolating the weeks before the iPad’s arrival: New media expert Jeff Jarvis and open-web activist Cory Doctorow took up similar arguments that the iPad is a retrograde device because it’s based around media consumption rather than creation, strangling development and making a single company our personal technology gatekeepers. In responses to Jarvis and Doctorow respectively, hyperlocal journalist Howard Owens and former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver defended those “consumers,” countering that not everybody consumes media like tech critics do — most people are primarily consumers, and that’s OK.

Meanwhile, two other writers made, judging from their pieces’ headlines, an almost identical point: The iPad is not going to save the news or publishing industries. Leaning heavily on Jeff Jarvis, The Huffington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas made the consumption argument, saying that consumers want to tweak, question and pass around their content, not just passively consume it. And Harvard Business Review editor Paul Michelman contended that publishers are trying to retrofit their media onto this new one.

News business expert Alan Mutter and Poynter blogger Damon Kiesow offered some tips for publishers who do want to succeed on the iPad: Mutter wrote a thorough and helpful breakdown of designing for print, the web and mobile media, concluding, “Publishers who want to take full advantage of the iPad will have to do better by creating content that is media-rich, interactive, viral, transactional and mobile.” Kiesow told news orgs to consider what the iPad will be down the road as they design.

There was also quite a bit written about news organizations’ iPad apps, most of it not exactly glowing. Damon Kiesow provided a helpful list of journalism-related apps, finding that not surprisingly, most of the top selling ones are free. The high prices of many news orgs’ apps drew an inspired rant from British journalist Kevin Anderson in which he called the pricing “a last act of insanity by delusional content companies.” Poynter’s Bill Mitchell took a look at early critical comments by users about high prices and concluded that by not explaining themselves, publishers are leaving it to the crowd to make up their own less-than-charitable explanations for their moves.

As for specific apps, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore was wowed by USA Today’s top-selling app, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum compared The New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s apps, and news industry analyst Ken Doctor looked at the Journal’s iPad strategy. Finally, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton found three intriguing news-navigation design ideas while browsing news orgs’ iPad apps: Story-to-story navigation, pushing readers straight past headlines, and the “cyberclaustrophobia” of The New York Times’ Editors’ Choice app.

Is WikiLeaks a new form of journalism?: On Monday, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks posted video of civilians being killed by a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad in 2007. In a solid explanation of the situation, The New York Times’ Noam Cohen and Brian Stelter noted that with the video, WikiLeaks is making a major existential shift by “edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.”

Others noticed the journalistic implications as well, with Jonathan Stray of Foreign Policy wondering whether WikiLeaks is pioneering a new, revolutionary avenue for sourcing outside the confines of traditional media outlets. On Twitter, Dan Gillmor posited that a key part of WikiLeaks’ ascendancy is the fact that unlike traditional news orgs, it doesn’t see itself as a gatekeeper, and C.W. Anderson declared the video and an analysis of it by a former helicopter pilot “networked journalism.” If you want to know more about WikiLeaks itself, Mother Jones has plenty of background in a detailed feature.

Net neutrality takes a hit: In the tech world, the week’s big non-iPad story came on Tuesday, when a federal judge allowed Internet service providers some ability to slow down or regulate traffic on their network. It was a huge blow to proponents of net neutrality, or the belief that all web use should be free of restrictions or institutional control. The FCC has tried for years to impose net neutrality standards on ISPs, so it’s obviously a big setback for them, too.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNET all have solid summaries of the case and its broader meaning, and The Washington Post takes a look at the FCC’s options in the wake of the ruling. I haven’t seen anyone directly tie this case to journalism, though it obviously has major implications for who controls the future of the web, which in turn will influence what news organizations do there. And as Dan Gillmor notes, this isn’t just a free-speech issue; it’s also about the future of widespread broadband, something that has been mentioned in the past (including by Gillmor himself) as a potentially key piece of the future-of-news puzzle.

Murdoch rattles more sabers: As his media holdings continue to prepare to put up paywalls around their online content (The Times of London was the recent announcement), Rupert Murdoch made another public appearance this week in which he bashed search engines, free online news sites and The New York Times. There is one thing he likes about technology, though: The iPad, which he said “may well be the saving of the newspaper industry.” Staci Kramer of paidContent astutely notes that Murdoch’s own statements about charging for content imply that it will only work if virtually every news org does it. Meanwhile, Australian writer Eric Beecher argues that Murdoch’s money-losing newspapers subsidize the power and influence that the rest of his media empire thrives on.

In other paid-content news, the Chicago Reader has an informative profile of the interesting startup Kachingle, which allow users to pay a flat fee to read a number of sites, then designate how much of their money goes where and trumpet to their friends where they’re reading. Also The New Republic put a partial paywall up, and newspaper chain Freedom Communications took its test paywall down.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a pretty large collection of items for you this week, starting with a couple of bits of news and finishing with several interesting pieces to read.

Columbia University announced a new dual-degree master’s program in journalism and computer science. Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired has a deeper look at the program’s plans to produce hacker-journalists who can be pioneers in data visualization and analysis and device-driven design, along with a couple of brutally honest quotes from Columbia faculty about the relative paucity of computing skills among even “tech-savvy journalists.” Just about everybody loved the idea of the program, though journalist/developer Chris Amico cautioned that more than just dual-degree journalists need to be hanging out with the computer scientists.  ”The problem isn’t just a lack of reporters who can code, but a shortage of people in the newsroom who know what’s possible,” he wrote.

Down the road, this may be seen as a turning point: Demand Media, which has been derided lately as a “content farm” will create and run a new travel section for USA Today. As Advertising Age points out, USA Today isn’t the first newspaper to get content from Demand Media — the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gets a travel article a week — but this is collaboration of an entirely new scale.

Now the think pieces: Here at the Lab, former newspaper exec Martin Langeveld updated his year-old post asserting that more than 95 percent of readership of newspaper content is in print rather than online, and while the numbers changed a bit, his general finding did not.

In an interview with Poynter, Newser’s Michael Wolff had some provocative words for news orgs, telling them readers want stories online with less context, not more (as several folks asserted a few weeks ago at SXSW) and saying he would’ve told newspapers way back when not to go on the web at all: “[Online readers'] experiences have changed and their needs have changed, and I just don’t think traditional news companies are in a position to really understand that kind of change or to speak to it or to deliver it.”

At The Atlantic, Lane Wallace wrote that journalists’ (especially veterans’) strongest bias is not political, but is instead an predetermined assumption of a story line that prevents them from seeing the entire picture.

And lastly, two great academically oriented musings on media and society: Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith wonders if social media furthers our cultural knowledge gap, and University of Southern Denmark professor Thomas Pettitt talks to the Lab’s Megan Garber about the Gutenberg Parenthesis and society’s return to orally based communication with digital media. Both are great food for thought.

January 22 2010

15:06

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ paywall plans, and what’s behind MediaNews’ bankruptcy

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s news about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times’ paywall proposal: No question about media and journalism’s biggest story this week: The New York Times announced it plans to begin charging readers for access to its website in 2011. Here’s how it’ll work: you can view an as-yet-unidentified number of articles for free each month before the Times requires you to pay a flat, unlimited-access fee to see more; this is known as a metered system. (If you subscribe to the print edition, it’ll be free.) Two Times execs answered questions about the plan, including whether you can still email and link to articles (you can) and why it’s different from TimesSelect, the abandoned paid-content experiment it tried from 2005-07. Gabriel Sherman of New York’s Daily Intel, who broke the rumor on Sunday, has some details of the paywall debate within the Times.

There’s been a ton of reaction to the Times’ plan online, so I’ll tackle it in three parts: First, the essential reading, then some other worthwhile opinions, and finally the interesting ephemera.

Four must-reads: It makes sense to start with New York Times media critic David Carr’s take on the plan, because it’s the most the thorough, cogent defense of the Times’ paywall you’ll find. He argues that Times execs “have installed a dial on the huge, heaving content machine of The New York Times,” giving the site another flexible revenue stream outside of advertising. If you’re up for a little algebra, Reuters’ Felix Salmon has a sharp economic analysis of the paywall, arguing that the value of each article will become much greater for subscribers than nonsubscribers. For the more theoretical-minded, CUNY prof C.W. Anderson has some fascinating thoughts here at the Lab on how the paywall turns the Times into a niche product and what it means for our concept of the “public.” And as usual, Ken Doctor thoughtfully answers many of the practical questions you’re asking right now.

Other thoughtful opinions: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell poses a lot of great business questions and wonders how the Times will handle putting the burden on its most loyal online-only users. Steve Yelvington reminds us that we’re not going to learn much here that we can apply to other papers, because “the Times is fundamentally in a different business than regional dailies” and “a single experiment with a single price point by a single newspaper is just a stab in the dark.” Before the announcement, former Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, Forrester Research’s James McQuivey, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon gave the Times advice on constructing its paywall, almost none of which showed up in the Times’ plans. Two massive tech blogs, TechCrunch and Mashable, think the paywall won’t amount to much. Slate’s Jack Shafer says people will find ways to get around it, NYU’s Jay Rosen echoes C.W. Anderson’s thoughts on niche vs. public, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis doesn’t like the Times’ sense of entitlement.

The ephemera: The best stuff on Twitter about the announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even true. Former E&Pers Fitz & Jen interview a few newspaper execs and find that (surprise, surprise) the like the Times’ idea. So does Steven Brill of Journalism Online, who plans to roll out a few paywalls of his own soon. Dan Gillmor wants the Times to find out from readers what new features they’d pay for, and Jeff Sonderman makes two good points: “The major casualty of NYT paywall is sharing,” and “Knowing the ‘meter is running’ creates cautious viewing of the free articles.”

Apple’s tablet to go public: Apple announced that it will unveil its “latest creation” (read: its new tablet) next Wednesday. Since the announcement came a day after word of the Times’ paywall plans broke, it was only natural that the rumors would merge. The Daily Intel’s Gabriel Sherman, who broke the story of those Times plans, quoted Times officials putting the Times-tablet-deal rumors to rest. The Wall Street Journal detailed Apple’s plans for the tablet to do to newspapers, magazines and TV what the iPod did to music. Meanwhile, Columbia j-student Vadim Lavrusik and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr got tired of the tablet hype — Lavrusik for the print industry and Carr for tech geeks. (The Week also has a great timeline of the rumors.)

MediaNews goes bankrupt: Last Friday, MediaNews Group — a newspaper chain that publishes the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury-News, among others — announced it would file for bankruptcy protection. (A smaller chain, Morris Publishing Group, made the same announcement the day before.) For the facts and background of the filing, we’ve got a few sources: At the Lab, MediaNews veteran Martin Langeveld has a whole lot of history and insight on MediaNews chief Dean Singleton. News business analyst Alan Mutter tells us about the amazing fact that Singleton will come out of the filing unscathed but Hearst, which invested in MediaNews to save the San Francisco Chronicle, stands to lose $317 million in the deal. And MinnPost reports that the St. Paul Pioneer Press was the only MediaNews paper losing money.

Looking at the big picture, Ken Doctor says that bankruptcies like these are just a chance for newspapers to buy time while adjusting their strategy in “the fog of media war.” Steve Outing takes a glass-half-full approach, arguing that the downfall of old-media chains like MediaNews are a great opportunity for journalism startups to build a new news ecosystem.

How much do Google News users read?: An annual study by research firm Outsell and Ken Doctor on online and offline news preferences made waves by reporting that 44 percent of Google News users scan headlines without clicking through to the original articles. PaidContent noted that Outsell has a dog in this fight; it openly advocates that news organizations should get more money from Google. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan was not impressed, giving a thorough critique of the study and its perceived implications. Syracuse j-prof Vin Crosbie also wondered whether the same pattern might be true with print headlines.

In a similar vein, BNET’s David Weir used comScore numbers to argue that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft support big newspapers, and Jeff Jarvis made one of his favorite arguments — in defense of the link.

Heartbreak in Haiti: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the journalism and media connections to the largest news story in the world for the past two weeks — the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Several sites noted that Twitter led the way in breaking news of the quake and in raising money for relief. The money aspect is new, but as Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan noted last June, Twitter came of age a long time ago as a medium for breaking global news. That’s what it does. The coverage also provided an opportunity for discussion about the ethics of giving aid while reporting.

Reading roundup: In addition to being out in front of the whole New York Times paywall story, Gabriel Sherman authored a nice, long think piece for The New Republic on the difficulties of one of America’s other great newspapers, The Washington Post. For what it’s worth, Post patriarch Donald Graham thought it was “not even a molehill.”

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan uses the economic concept of stock and flow to describe the delicate balance between timeliness and permanence the world of online media. It’s a brilliant idea — a must-read.

Finally, a promising new site named MediaCritic, run by Salon veteran Scott Rosenberg, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor, and Lucasfilm’s Bill Gannon, had its soft launch this week. It looks like it’s going to include some nifty features, like Rosenberg’s regular curation of Twitter commentary on big media subjects.

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